LUSAIL – A chant of “RONALDO! RONALDO!” swept around the biggest stadium at the World Cup, followed by loud jeers when the fans realized their idol wasn’t coming onto the field.
Cristiano Ronaldo was, in fact, sitting in the Portugal dugout, looking glum and still wearing a substitute’s bib. And the guy who started instead of him on Tuesday was about to complete a hat trick.
After Ronaldo was dropped from the starting lineup in a bold call by Portugal coach Fernando Santos, Goncalo Ramos — the superstar striker’s unlikely replacement — made himself an instant star by leading the team to a 6-1 win over Switzerland and into the World Cup quarterfinals.
Ramos, a 21-year-old forward who only made his Portugal debut last month, demonstrated the kind of clinical finishing for which Ronaldo was once known in scoring the first goal in the 17th minute and adding others in the 51st and 67th.
No player had scored a hat trick in his first World Cup start since Germany striker Miroslav Klose in 2002.
“Not even in my wildest dreams did I think about being part of the starting team for the knockout stage,” said Ramos, an unheralded striker who plays for Benfica and counts Ronaldo as his soccer idol along with Robert Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It was around the hour mark that fans throughout the 89,000-seat Lusail Stadium started to implore Santos to bring on the 37-year-old Ronaldo, and they got their wish in the 72nd minute. Portugal had the game wrapped up by then, with defenders Pepe and Raphael Guerreiro also having scored. Rafael Leao added another goal in stoppage time.
Ronaldo didn't score — he still hasn't in the knockout stage in any of his five World Cups — and after briefly celebrating with his teammates following the final whistle, he walked off the field on his own, perhaps wondering where his career goes from here.
He is currently without a club after leaving Manchester United midway through the World Cup, and he might no longer be the starter for his country.
The rest of the Portugal team hung around to applaud its fans at one end of the stadium. A quarterfinal match awaits against Morocco on Saturday and Santos now has to decide whether to stick with Ramos or restore Ronaldo, the top scorer in men’s international soccer and one of the game’s greatest ever players.
Santos said it was a strategic decision to drop Ronaldo and not a disciplinary one, having expressed unhappiness during his eve-of-match news conference Monday at the striker’s attitude after he was substituted against South Korea in the team’s final group game.
“What we have to do is think about this team collectively,” Santos said, before talking about Ronaldo. “I will always consider he is a very important player to have in the team.”
That might now be a substitute and an experienced head in the locker room rather than a starter.
Ramos was a surprise replacement — he had previously only made three substitute appearances for Portugal — and took his chance.
Ramos, who was only 2 years old when Ronaldo made his Portugal debut in 2003, scored the first hat trick at this year’s World Cup.
He drove a rising shot with his left foot inside Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s near post for the first goal, flicked deftly through Sommer’s legs from close range for the second, and then ran through to chip the goalkeeper for his third.
Ronaldo was seen smiling while he was warming up on the side of the field after Ramos’ second goal.
“Cristiano, as our captain, did what he always does,” Ramos said. “He helped us and encouraged us, not only myself but my colleagues.”
Ramos even had an assist, playing the ball through for Guerreiro to score the fourth goal.
Ronaldo was lively when he came on and and even thought he had scored when he ran through and drove a low left-footed shot past Sommer. The goal was disallowed for offside, much to the irritation of the fans — Portuguese or from other countries — who had come to see him play.
Switzerland's only goal came in the 57th minute when Manuel Akanji tapped in at the far post after a corner kick.
Switzerland lost in the round of 16 for the third straight World Cup. The country hasn't reached the quarterfinals since hosting the event in 1954.
Pepe took the captaincy from Ronaldo and became the oldest player to score in the knockout stage at the World Cup, at 39 years, 283 days.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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